Selected Works

"An eye-opening collection."
Charles Calhoun
Booklist, Starred review
"A marvelous work."
Library Journal
"Rich enough to repay multiple readings.”
"Longfellow lives again."
Times Literary Supplement
Winner of the Literature and Language Award, AAP
Winner of the 2009 Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab Award, American Library Association
A Darwin Bicentennial Exhibit, with many illustrations from the Darwin holdings of the Lilly Library.

Louis Agassiz:
Creator of American Science

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



NEW: Watch video of author's appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival


Christoph Irmscher vividly illuminates a colorful and controversial titan of American natural science. With brilliant insight, Irmscher reveals how Louis Agassiz bridged the gap between specialist and amateur in 19th-century America, changing ordinary people’s relationship with science--and the role of the scientist--forever. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, the charismatic Swiss naturalist legendary for his study of glaciers, took America by storm. An obsessive collector and fieldworker, Agassiz enlisted the public in a vast campaign to send him specimens for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of young scientists and teachers. But there’s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassiz's racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The book’s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as catty exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over the great Agassiz’s stubborn resistance to evolution.


"Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the complexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structures. This is a book not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the making."
Rebecca Stott, The New York Times Book Review

"Christoph Irmscher has brought to life an essential figure in the history of American science and culture. Irmscher's expertise and talent for vivid prose open a fascinating window onto the origins of American science as we know it."
Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club

"Reading this book is a pleasure. The writing is engaging and witty, while always being scholarly and intellectually rewarding. I felt that I had become acquainted with an entire generation of biologists about whom I had known little or nothing before. The illustrations, many from the author's personal collection, are well chosen to add visual interest and frequently offer unexpected, thought-provoking views of Agassiz's life and worldview. Ultimately, this is a fine account of an American scientific icon, historically important but disappointingly flawed. Irmscher's account of Agassiz's life reminds us always to examine our own preconceptions concerning the nature of reality and man's place in the universe."
Tom Cronin, Professor of Biology, University of Maryland Baltimore County

"It's unlikely that Agassiz will get a better biography in our lifetime... An amazing performance."
Steve Donoghue, in Open Letters Monthly

"Christoph Irmscher’s important new biography of this outsize figure provides a fresh evaluation of Agassiz’s professional and personal life, of his disproportionate influence on the development and professionalization of science in America, and of his abuse of scientific authority.... [Irmscher's] extensively sourced book provides a more critical evaluation of his subject’s life and professional impact—both good and bad—than do many earlier biographies, whose authors had a close personal relationship with the Agassiz family or a longstanding professional affiliation with Harvard."
James Hanken, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Curator of Herpetology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, in Harvard Magazine

"Irmscher's book is the best biography of an American scientist I have read: warm and acerb, learned and witty, and always in style."
Gerald Weissmann, in The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists for Experimental Biology

"A groundbreaking book."
The Christian Science Monitor

"This engrossing, ambitious, and lucid book summons up not just a man but an era. Far more than the biography of a tragically flawed genius, here is a collective portrait of American science at a moment of transition, from a Biblical view of nature as fixed to an evolutionary view of nature as flow. Agassiz chose the wrong side in that argument, but he chose the right side on many other questions, and in the process, through his captivating voice and entrepreneurial zeal, he brought science from the field into the home, from the laboratory into the public arena."
Scott Russell Sanders, Author of A Conservationist Manifesto and Earth Works

"A thoroughly satisfying biography."
Kirkus Reviews

"This biography captures not only a man but also his time and place. It's a delight to read."
The Boston Globe

"A budding nineteenth-century zoologist, Addison Verrill worshipfully regarded his Harvard mentor, Louis Agassiz, as 'the great leader of the scientific world.' Aware of the low opinion scientists now hold of Agassiz, many twenty-first-century readers may find Verrill’s veneration for the Swiss-born naturalist inexplicable. With this compelling biography, Irmscher dispels the mystery, showing both how Agassiz established himself as America’s most prominent scientist and how he subsequently fell into professional ignominy.... A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science. ”

For media inquiries: Michelle Bonanno, Senior Publicist, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

Christoph Irmscher lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, the composer Lauren Bernofsky, his children Nick and Julia, and his cats Jeremy and Annie (the latter named after the famous Hoosier “orphant,” of course). Christoph teaches English at Indiana University, where he also directs the Wells Scholars Program. He has just completed a new biography of Max Eastman.